Whiteness is a default. Whiteness is normal. It’s so normal it is trivial to most who identify as white and even those who don’t. I am still unsure to what extent artist TJ McLachlan sincerely knows this even after our conversation. But unlike most who roll their eyes or get hot and bothered at the hint of a ‘check your privilege’ assertion, McLachlan has set his art practice to have dialogues about this same contentious thing called privilege as it relates to whiteness and patriarchy. And to that, there’s a clear awareness of self in a place like the Canadian landscape—to a certain degree.
It seems as though the hot thing to do in our zeitgeist is flailing around picket signs, and joining the ever-expanding band of social justice warriors majority of which act without any sense of introspection—affectedly taking up as much airtime as they can possibly cram in so as to get the applause they desperately need for being trendy. And oh, there are also those who consider themselves allies by showing up for the sake of it and totally disregarding what their role is in showing up.
Aussie writer and community worker Jonathan Sri, has spoken about Australia’s white supremacist history saying how Australia’s national identity is still based on an unspoken and underlying distinction between white Australia and the racial other. This is a problem because it increases the chances of dehumanizing people of colour such as migrant workers, indigenous peoples, and refugees. Hearing all that unsurprisingly matches up perfectly to Canada’s own history.
I mean, if you’ve always lived in a community where you are oblivious to things like the lineage of privilege embedded within your gender or your race why would you all of a sudden interrogate that? What will make you want to think about something that seemingly appears on the periphery of your micro life? There’s no need to think about not seeing people of your race when you turn on the TV because it is not normal to see people who don’t look like you reflected. There’s no need to be courteous of your speech or how you dress because there’s no reason why anyone will attribute those choices to your race or use it as a stigmatizing stance. If you ask for a person in charge, it will be rather rare to see someone who is not of your race. You can be late to a meeting without it being reflected on your race. You can have quirks without it being reflected on your race. You can be also sure that most of your faculty members will be of your race when you enroll in a university. You can be at a meeting group and feel completely tied in rather than isolated, outnumbered, out of place or even feared.** So why will you care to think about all this being a privilege? Why will you step out of your luxury? Why would you want to be an ally? Is your want for equality coming from an authentic place?
I suppose at the same time being silent and apathetic is an even bigger of an injustice if not violent. McLachlan’s interest in adding to these touchy yet important conversations through his object making are baby steps and time will tell where it goes and what it does. The paradox of McLachlan contributing to this discourse through (art)making (a privilege in of itself) that has not always been accessible to marginalized voices and being interviewed about it is not lost. Read our full chat below.
"I think that a lot of conversations that come from a privileged place assume a vacuum. The ability to bracket one object (or person or experience) from its context is decidedly privileged. Not everyone has the luxury of a vacuum. "
Luther Konadu: One obvious thing that I am curious about is your info about yourself on your website: It states your name, then underneath that "Canadian prairies, systematic privilege, material culture, meaning making processes". Assuming it's your bio? or Mantra maybe? It seems like you are aware not just of yourself and what you do, but where you stand socially, culturally and even maybe politically... where does this self-awareness comes from?
TJ McLachlan: The text is just situating myself and my work, giving some context. It’s a succinct way to get to my work and what concerns me. Yeah, you’re right, I’m pretty self aware, or as self aware as I can be. When I was working through my undergrad (BFA Critical and Cultural Practices) I spent quite a bit of time studying cultural theory. At least initially I kept a bit of a separation between my research interests and studio interests. In my academics I went down a path that was something like this: I wanted to be able to interpret culture; it became clear to do that I needed to have a grasp on ideology; that led me to thinking about subjectivity and subectivisation; from here I realized that meaning was (at least to my ambitions) much more of a process than a thing; From here a lot of things coalesced and I became very aware of my privilege (straight, white, male), and started to probe that — own that — take it on as a fact of my situatedness.
Stepping back, just to be clear, I now think ‘interpreting culture’ is a crazy goal. Usually one that assumes a pretty normalized bearing. It oversimplifies things too much. That’s just an itch I can’t leave unscratched!
LK: I think it's great that you became aware of your privilege as you say. Maybe can you talk more on how you came to this awareness. By causally listing three things that define your privilege, to me it equates to someone wearing a t-shirt indicating some self-imposed flaw as a way to divert potential criticism...or a couple safe words to say just to keep yourself in the clear so to speak...people tend to throw around that idea my mentioning a couple things--probably from a text they read or who knows where but they don't genuinely know what it fully intends or actually believe in what they say they are aware of. So can you please elaborate on what realizing your privilege really means to you...what you recognize as its implication, what you are doing with that knowledge, what you probed? and what owning it as you put it means to you?
TJM: I really agree with what you are saying. That’s a big part of my research, how public acts of wokeness become a salve on the pain of, for instance, white fragility. I once had a conversation where I was challenged to take some time to really stew in my privilege in order to make it more apparent, and then have a clearer sense of what it was I was reacting to. That made sense to me in a very logical way but didn’t quite feel right. I think I was imaging some kind of a caricature of myself. Being louder and more brazen. I knew that wasn’t actually me, but I also knew that I was imbricated in systemic privilege all the same. I realized things like the ability to opt out of uncomfortable discussions, and distance myself from political confrontations was a privileged stance.
I have some resistance to the title of 'ally'. In the end, I think if the goal is to undermine privilege than whatever term you choose to use is fine. But I think many people bound up in privilege let being an ally keep them from really changing their day to day. I think if I want to confront privilege probably the most useful approach I can take is to deal with the ways supremacy plays out in my life (not trying to address the injustice someone else faces) I suspect that if my first goal is to recognize and address the small day to day moments where I find privilege I will accomplish more than wearing a t-shirt, as you say. Often that means being sure to listen first. I don’t always have to be heard. Make room for others by stepping down from positions of authority. But, the most practical and far reaching way I have found is to listen more and not feel obliged to speak at every opportunity. At the same time, having the conversations that are uncomfortable has been really significant. In my practice, I think I am trying to keep these types of conversations in the air.
I gather from the question that you might have some resistance to quoting theory (at least in these regards)…. but… that’s almost the point. Jenny Zhang made a pretty fascinating distinction in an essay for the New Inquiry called Against Extinction. She talked about having the opportunity to develop your politics through theory rather than forced violations against your body. Ha! I really think that’s true. That is my reality. I have the privilege to learn my politics through theory and ideals rather than from a need to react to violence. This essay and an excerpt from George Yancy (more theory) was what I was reacting to in my piece Managed Exposure. The ability to manage and control the terms of your exposure to the world.
Dealing with privilege is not too remarkable in the sense that to really carefully confront it, it’s not about an event or protest or t-shirt. It’s realigning your ethic. It’s not speaking when you think you are compelled to. Or speaking when silence would be more comfortable. A series of small reactions. There are times when larger actions are necessary, of course.
LK: What was your concept of privilege prior to what you mention as 'a lot of things coalescing' to your awareness of it...
TJM: I don’t know that I can say it was any really specific or discreet thing. It just lacked depth. I wasn't as engaged as I should have been. Actually, come to think of it, it was a fairly intellectual understanding but not particularly embodied. But the events I was referencing, 'that coalesced,' made it pretty real and significant in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
Your Reading is a Solipsism
LK: Unless I'm wrong, your one-page site only gives visitors a selection of your work in series of galleries accompanied by titles and that's about it. There's very little information about the work or about yourself...first, if there's one or two or few things that you will like for visitors to take away or even consider from viewing your work on your site what would it be? What connections are you hoping people will make with the titles associated with them? Do you see them as firstly formal constructions aside from yourself as an individual (hence excluding your info maybe)? Second, out of curiosity, you've also omitted things like cv, timeline of work, your background, artist statement and such...what's the decision behind those...
TJM: I think most of the decisions you have brought up come from a place that values viewers over the artist. I think one of the most fundamental and political facets of art is the viewer’s agency. A clear ‘this is that’ tends to cut off the experience of something, and hoists the artist up on the viewers shoulders as the real champ. I work to set up an opportunity for interesting conversations. I usually allow other factors to contextualize the work. I’m beginning to write companion pieces (or something like that! ‘companion pieces’ sounds ridiculous) to lead a conversation, but I haven’t landed those yet; still pretty awkward. I think during most shows, studio visits, etc there is a way to set the stage. There’s a pretty interesting dynamic that comes up when you explore an idea through unfamiliar metaphors.
That said, I know this is double edged. On one hand, I want to be generous to viewers. On the other I don’t want to say much! I think ambiguity is an amazing thing. It leaves enough room for someone who is engaged to use their agency to contextualize work as they see fit (I think we are always doing this anyway). At the same time ambiguity can be a cop-out. Saying nothing but claiming it’s an important choice. I try to own both of those without setting up a binary for myself. Sometimes I do better than other times.
So, to actually answer your question, I want my work to be understood as fronting conversations around systemic privilege. I know my work is fairly opaque, but I don’t think objects contain meaning; meaning is a process that we go through. I think this gives more room for discussion that doesn’t take anything for granted. I think.
Insulation, Isolation (Installation View)
LK: I think postmodern/ contemporary art by default invites subjectivism and pluralistic interpretations even given the artist's initial intentions... so leaving it up to the viewers is already taken care of...i wouldn't worry about shoving your meaning or definitions down audiences throats. I also think if an artist makes work they are starting a some sort of conversation and therefore they shouldn't just bow out and leave it entirely for the viewers--like you said, its a cop out...that being said, can you talk about how these physical objects relate or have anything do with the systematic privilege conversation you want it to lead since you mention the objects don't contain meaning ? Also can you share from your point of view what systematic privilege entails?
TJM: I’m resistant to making genre pieces. If you take a cowboy, and a horse and a landscape and put it together it’s clear you have a western… but so what? What’s the content? Often visual art functions this way. put a series of cultural signifiers together and you have an artwork about privilege, or ecology, or the economy. I don’t know that this makes for particularly enticing content. I think it’s much more generative to develop a series of relationships and frame the work in a context that at least starts the conversation. In practice I find people aren’t too comfortable with this approach to start with, but once a conversation develops some momentum, using metaphors that aren’t culturally loaded develops really potent ideas!
So, how might this look in my work? In Insulation, Isolation I was using conventions of display as a controlling metaphor. I think Displays are a rich way to think about privilege. If you think of a storefront display they’re meant to sell something, to ascribe value, to set up a focal point — a norm. There’s usually an erasure that comes with displays. The backside and the structure that constitutes it is invisible but necessary. In this piece there is a false wall that erases a very loaded context. It’s on small stands (hard to see from the documentation but look for small red bits on the floor!) that exaggerate the apparent separation from it’s context. At the same time, the lighting comes from the architecture. It’s leeching off the infrastructure of the room to its own end (perpetuating a focal point). The lights never touch the objects or display, but the connection is fairly tangible. I think this is a pretty great way to think about privilege. Something that exists, understands itself as unconnected, but, in actuality relying on and taking advantage of it’s context. Each of the four objects are an attempt to take a convention of display and put it to use. The wall piece, I was thinking of as a mantle, the piece on the right, as a morgue cabinet, the centre piece as a chaise (like a reclining figure or Freud’s chair) and the piece on the left was a more base display by carving out a piece of space. This isn’t to say this is a mantle, but rather asking ‘how would a mantle display an object’ So to look a little closer, lets take the wall piece. I was thinking about bookends and how they imply a beginning and end, a start and finish. But of course, there is very little that is so discreet. The two ‘bookends’ are pushed off the shelf so the ‘content’ falls and starts to affect other areas. This gets back to how I think privilege exists in very mundane and pervasive ways. It’s never so contained and identifiable. The bookends might exist, but they don’t always work the way you would anticipate. By sorting through the relationships between objects while considering privilege, a chance to talk about something without slipping into taken for granted ideas comes about. I work hard to keep these relationships present on different levels: the architectural space to the installation, the component objects to each other, and the various pieces in each component object.
Most of my work follows a similar logic. Usually I start with some dynamic of privilege in mind and start to scrutinize it through material relationships. ‘If this is a critique of masculinity how would this object react to that one?’
Insulation, Isolation (detail)
LK: Let’s talk about the compositions of the structures autonomously. They remind me of Oscar Tauzon's minimalist yet robust sculptures. They seem to have a lot of intention behind their make up. They look like you are reaching for something specific...and they seem very put together and structurally stable. I don't know how much pre building planning you do before going in...can you talk a bit more about your process of actually making the work...
Can you also talk about what you are thinking / looking for when you are the work and how much is improvised during the process...
TJM: I didn’t know Tauzon’s work, but it’s great! thanks for that reference! There’s a real balance between a plan and the limits of my skill. The base of A Centred Perspective was fairly improvised because i had to react to what would make it stand. I knew I wanted a scaffolded base, and one that was fairly minimal and interconnected. I first tried to bend the pipe into specific pieces but it started to feel contrived. I was trying to perserve a sense of provisionality — 'This is what i have so this is what it has to be'. There was obviously some bending to make the bases connect and ultimately rely on each other, but it required a lot of reacting. If a piece wasn’t strong enough, I would have to improvise the next piece.
By working with construction materials I am working with material that is meant to have something done with it, but usually I’m doing something it’s not quite intended for, so I need to react and reimagine it. I am apt enough with my hands that if I want to build this or that type of structure I can get close to it, but usually i need to adapt.
So that’s to say, I start with a pretty clear plan, but usually need to reconcile it to the practical limits of what I’m doing. Usually the most enticing objects are the furthest from my plan.
Your Syntax Falls Short
LK: Your choices of materials are also unignorable...they all then to be industrial building materials...why the choices...it seems you'd have to have some experience using those materials in oder to work with them...so can you talk more on your materials…
TJM: I like that most of the materials have pretty clear connections to everyday spaces. We just know drywall. It’s largely how we finish our world, so by drywalling something it implies that it is completed. I had a pretty interesting realization when I was showing A Centred Perspective. The lines on OSB (the type of plywood I was using) are pretty typical for the material, but I was able to find some that matched the duct work in the space really well. I started adding my own lines to the backs in order to extend the lines around the corners of the boxes. To people who knew the material, they tended to not even acknowledge the lines; they were just taken for granted with this material. to people who didn’t know the material they assumed I painted all the lines on the boxes and understood it as a really significant gesture. To my mind, the way people relate to material is encapsulated in that experience. The history and knowledge of material is pretty deep but largely unconscious.
I would have said I’m just not seduced by sophisticated materials, but i recently got a piece 3d printed for the first time. It was pretty exciting… maybe I do like less ubiquitous materials too.
"I have some resistance to the title of 'ally'[...] I think many people bound up in privilege let being an ally keep them from really changing their day to day. I think if I want to confront privilege probably the most useful approach I can take is to deal with the ways supremacy plays out in my life (not trying to address the injustice someone else faces)"
LK: Also the digitally generated environments...how do they relate to other works and when/how did you start to take your toward that direction…
TJM: These are pretty new. It made sense to start doing them for a few reasons. I am pretty interested in starting to do public art, so I needed a way to represent hypothetical spaces better. I started making these impossible monuments in vast and superficial landscapes as a way to learn, but started to enjoy them more and more. There’s similar themes to my sculptures though. Veneers, and reflections that are pretty inwardly focused, but they also imply a space beyond the image. For instance a reflection in a plane shows what’s around the corner, out of sight. I think that a lot of conversations that come from a privileged place assume a vacuum. The ability to bracket one object (or person or experience) from its context is decidedly privileged. not everyone has the luxury of a vacuum. I’m working on ways to display these right now. I think they will always exist as digital landscapes, but I’m thinking about including smaller physical models too. I need to try it and see how they sit together. It’s also way easier to store a .jpg than an installation.
LK: I find your titling also intriguing...I most of them seem too be referencing someone/something (with the use of "You") outwardly-- with the exception of the digital rendering...can you speak on the titles?
TJM: I used the second person for awhile because I liked the slippage in who is saying what, and who is being addressed. This was coming from a pretty lazy take on Pierre Bourdieu's writing on distinctions. What strikes me about his ideas is that in making a statement about something “Your syntax falls short” there is a judgement bound up in it, something like “your syntax falls short and I have the ability to discern that it does”. It plays with who the statement is actually about. Ostensibly it’s about ‘you’ but maybe it’s more about the speaker, whoever the viewer decides that is. That’s a pretty specific gesture that I’m not convinced is too successful. Mostly I just think of the titles as a way to highlight the main dynamic that i was thinking about.
**White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
All images courtesy of artist.